Amidst all the talk about inflation and inflation targets, and the strength of the labor market, and the role of stock prices in monetary policy, what the financial markets fastened on in the minutes from the Federal Reserve’s March minutes, released this afternoon, was a indication that the Fed would start to shrink its $4.5 trillion balance sheet of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities later in 2017. Reductions in the balance would be achieved, the minutes noted, by not buying new bonds and asset-backed securities when current portfolio holdings mature. That would lead to a slower reduction of the size of the balance sheet than if the Fed began to actively sell current holdings.
In light of the minutes, the Wall Street consensus is likely to remain at two further interest rate increases in 2017 and reductions in the balance sheet beginning in the last quarter of 2017.
There was a significant minority on the Fed arguing for sooner and faster interest rate increases since, these voices maintained, there was no slack left in the labor markets and inflation was running close to the central bank’s 2% target.
The minutes also indicated that the Fed was prepared for a weak reading on first quarter GDP, but that it believed any slowdown in growth was just the usual first quarter seasonal dip.
The stock market had been ahead up until the release of the Fed minutes on a strong job number from the private ADP job survey. (The government will announce its figures on March job growth on Friday.)
But stocks fell back with the release of the minutes. The Standard & Poor’s 500 had climbed from yesterday’s close at 2360 to 2377 at 1:55 p.m. New York time. The index then slid lower for the rest of the day to finish down 0.31% at 2357.86.